In the days of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Jesse James, and Billy the Kid, if someone referred to “Las Vegas”, they didn’t mean Nevada. They meant Las Vegas, New Mexico, on the Santa Fe Trail, and later the Santa Fe railroad.
In 1835, some Hispanic families obtained a land grant which included some lush meadows (“las Vegas”) on the Gallinas River. They built a plaza for their village, but initially only lived there to farm in the summer. The village, sitting on the western edge of the Great Plains, was exposed to attack from savage, nomadic Indians. During the winter, the families retreated to the relative safety of the City of Santa Fe, to the west, on the other side of the Sangre de Cristo mountains.
Permanent settlement began when Anglo traders started making regular wagon trips from St. Louis, Missouri, on the Santa Fe Trail. By 1846, Las Vegas had become a fairly large settlement. From the roof of a building on the Las Vegas plaza, Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny announced the conquest of the territory of New Mexico by the United States of America. From then until 1879, merchants did a brisk trade exporting wool and hides and importing trade goods.
On July 4, 1879, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad arrived in las Vegas, and with it came railroad employees, tradesmen, and merchants, as well as the gamblers and hoodlums endemic to the territories in those days. Two entire towns along the railroad were packed up like a circus and transported to Las Vegas. A Fred Harvey establishment was soon opened: “the Depot Hotel”, and another hotel erected on the plaza, sensibly named “the Plaza Hotel”. (The Plaza Hotel was renovated in 1982 and provides a welcome alternative lodging for travelers on I-25, the interstate highway between Santa Fe and Denver.) The year 1879 was also when Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp visited Las Vegas, only to move on to Tombstone, Arizona when the good citizens of Las Vegas began stringing up troublemakers without a trial.
On January 22, 1880, four hoodlums arrived for an evening of carousing at the local saloon, the “Variety House”, but refused to check their guns with the marshall. A gunfight ensued. The marshall was killed, but his deputy, “Myterious Dave” Mather, killed one of the outlaws and injured two others before they escaped. A posse rounded up the survivors, and they were briefly detained in the jail, until a group of vigilantes removed them. The prisoners were about to hang from a windmill on the plaza, when the dead marshall’s wife shot them.
In 1898, when Theodore Roosevelt assumed the task of forming a volunteer unit of cavalry for the war with Spain, he got most of volunteers from New Mexico, and in particular, the Las Vegas area. Las Vegas now has a “Rough Rider” Museum to honor the unit which won the Battle of San Juan Hill in Cuba during the Spanish-American War.
Las Vegas has one of New Mexico’s four state universities, New Mexico Highlands University, and a state mental hospital. Las Vegas has long since been displaced, however, by Albuquerque as the railroad and commercial center of New Mexico, and is now home to about 15,000 residents, three-quarters Hispanic, most of the rest Anglo.